Lid comes off Christ Church dispute

04 March 2020

Governing Body is urged to maintain a ‘united front’

K T Bruce

Dr Martyn Percy at last month’s Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature

Dr Martyn Percy at last month’s Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature

THE Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford, currently have the status of “crushed worms”, the Revd Jonathan Aitken, a former Cabinet minister and an alumnus of the college, said this week.

Just before evensong on Sunday, Mr Aitken emailed each member of the 60-strong Governing Body, attaching the unredacted judgment of Sir Andrew Smith, a former High Court judge, in which he exonerates the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy.

Dr Percy had been accused by an informal group of senior academics (officially called Censors and ex-Censors, but described by Mr Aitken as a “cabal”) of “immoral, scandalous, and disgraceful behavi­our” (News, 9 November 2018).

Sir Andrew’s judgment came at the end of an internal inquiry. After it was delivered, Dr Percy was rein­stated, allowing him back inside the cathedral (News, 23 August 2019). But, because he had launched a formal complaint, to be heard by an employment tribunal some time next year, the college authorities continue to ban him from meetings of the Governing Body. On 4 December, a motion asserting that there had been a breakdown of trust between the Governing Body and the Dean was carried by 38 votes.

The group of senior academics has not allowed Sir Andrew’s judg­ment to be seen in full by members of the Governing Body, calling it “private and confidential” (News, 11 October 2019). Mr Aitken’s email followed a new telling of the Christ Church saga in The Times on Satur­day by a journalist, Andrew Billen, who quotes from the judgment.

Within half an hour of Mr Ait­ken’s email, the Senior Censor, Professor Geraldine Johnson, emailed the other Governing Body members, The Times reported on Tuesday. She instructed: “Please immediately delete the email from Mr Aitken, including all the attach­ments, and confirm this by return to the senior censor’s email address. It is extremely important that we retain our united front on this mat­ter and that no one opens the attach­ment, however tempting this may be.”

The unredacted judgment con­tains appendices, one of which quotes from unguarded emails be­­tween members of the senior group, one of whom asks “Does anyone know any good poisoners?” (News, 21 February).

A college statement dismissed these: “Frustrations conveyed about — but not to — the Dean exacerbated by the dispute over his pay were in the past expressed in some private emails.”
Sir Andrew, according to The Times, remarked that the remarks were not always to be taken literally.
In a covering note on Sunday, Mr Aitken wrote: “I understand that at the last GB meeting it was announced that on legal advice no further action need be taken about these emails.
“I suggest that after reading the quotations from these emails in Appendix 5, it would be wise for members of the GB to reconsider this aspect of the saga. . .

“In any public institution, the use of such wildly inappropriate lan­guage would almost certainly lead to severe criticism, censure and pos­sibly the dismissal of those who had composed or condoned such emails.”

Although the college has always presented the dispute with Dr Percy as a row over his remuneration, The Times traces it back to issues of safeguarding, and attempts by the Dean to persuade the college to be­­come compliant with its legal safe­guarding responsibilities.

A statement on the Christ Church website makes no mention of the Times story, but says: “Confidential legal information has been leaked and presented in a deliberately mis­leading fashion, aimed at damaging the reputation of Christ Church and a number of its former and current trustees. This account of the dispute is simply not true. Even in the light of such pressure, we re­­main committed to the mediation.

“There is categorically no link be­­tween safeguarding and the com­plaint over pay initiated by the Dean. . . . Christ Church has been review­ing its safeguarding processes over the last three years and we are confident that all relevant policies met statutory requirements through­out the period in question.”

On Wednesday, the college opened up another front in the campaign. In a statement on its web­site, it reported that Dr Percy had heard “an allegation that a former student had been sexually assaulted during their time at Christ Church, whilst still a minor. Upon further investigation, it is apparent that this allegation was disclosed to the Dean, but never reported by him to the police, the local authority designated officer, Christ Church’s safeguarding officers, or the Church of England’s safeguarding officer.

“This allegation has now been re­­ported to the police. Internal investigations have subsequently raised serious concerns about the Dean’s handling of four separate matters reported to him. All relate to allegations of sexual abuse or assault, two involving a minor. On legal advice, we have also made a report to the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Office, and they have opened an investigation.

“There is no implication whatso­ever that the Dean himself has been involved in any form of sexual mis­conduct.”

In response, Dr Percy issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon denying the accusation and citing a police statement. He writes: “For the avoidance of doubt, the Dean dealt correctly with three historic cases of reported sexual assault in the aca­demic year 2016-17, and the infor­ma­tion on these were shared with the appropriate college officers at the time. One of these individuals had already made a report to the police, which was already known to the college officers concerned.

“A fourth historic disclosure was made by an individual who had never reported the matter to the police, and only agreed to talk about the alleged assault on the condition that there was no further disclosure. Their position of this individual has not changed.

“No person making a disclosure was still a minor — all were over 21. Three of the cases took place before 2014, prior to the Dean taking up office. None of alleged perpetrators posed a safeguarding risk.”
The Dean goes on to state that, in 2017, he raised concerns that college officers were ignorant of their safeguarding duties, and were untrained, something borne out by an email from Professor Johnson at the time, quoted in The Times.

The Christ Church statement omits to note that the police have reported that no investigation is being pursued. A police statement two weeks ago said: “The alleged victim has never reported such an incident to police, and as such there is no line of enquiry and no current investigation. Due to Home Office guidelines, we have recorded the offence as reported, but the matter has been filed.”

The college states, none the less, that a mediation process is ongoing. One key element is its continued refusal to reimburse the Dean for the cost of his legal defence, thought to be in the region of £400,000. In his email to Govern­ing Body members, Mr Aitken re­­marks that, “on grounds of financial reality alone”, such a stance looks irresponsible. He predicts that, when the employment tribunal finally sits, the judge will award the Dean all the costs incurred.

A statement from Christ Church suggests that, as it is a charity, the block lies with the Charity Commis­sion. “The Governing Body remains committed to achieving a satisfac­t­ory resolution. Christ Church would need explicit permission from the Charity Commission to reimburse the Dean’s legal costs.”

In response to an enquiry, the Charity Commission said on Tues­day: “In certain circumstances, charities may seek authorisation from the Commission for payments that they could not otherwise make. We have not received any authorisation re­­quest from Christ Church College in relation to the reimbursement of the dean’s legal costs.”

The statement also said that the Commission had instructed the trustees of Christ Church to commission an independent governance review.

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